March Feature: An Interview with Kurt Lovelace, Including New Poems

Kurt Lovelace

By Max Gardner

Kurt Lovelace is a junior in the department of mathematics at the University of Houston and a member of the Honors College, where he has been pursuing a new degree in mathematics and classics. During his previous working career, Kurt spent 27 years as a software engineer for Northrup Grumman, General Electric, and Bell Atlantic. As an entrepreneur, he also has been involved in several start-up corporations, guiding their development as the CTO using high performance clustered computing, especially for large data-set seismic image rendering and genetic research using bioinformatics.

First and foremost, Kurt always has been a writer, having published his earliest poetry and short stories while still a teenager. Kurt sees an analogy here between himself and Wallace Stevens —in that they both had full-time careers while they wrote poetry.  Kurt grew up for 5 years on Grand Bahamas Island during the 1960s and moved to the Washington D.C. area where he lived for another 22 years before moving to Houston, Texas.  Kurt is a veteran of the U.S. Army, having served in the 56th Field Artillery Group as a launch crew member for the Pershing 1B/2 nuclear missile in Germany during the early 1980s.

Please also continue reading after the interview for some new poems from Kurt that were not featured in our fall 2012 chapbook.

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In “Blossoms in the Salt-Sand Waves,” you reveal the narrator’s history by revisiting several different episodes throughout their childhood. With each one, we are given startling and beautiful images that tell us a lot about the character. How do you go about choosing the format for any particular poem or set of vignettes? What led you to choose this particular method for this collection of poems?

Well, this is my first attempt, in years, to sustain a long poem. I find few poems being written that are over a few pages nowadays, so that even short lyrical poems sometimes seem too much for the mercurial attention spans of the average reader. But I know that poetry is mostly read by writers and fellow poets, and so all readers for whom a longer poem might not present a daunting problem but rather be a welcome reprieve from the overabundance of short, tentative explorations present in most lyrics.

One note on long versus short poems: I can’t tell you how many times I have read a short poem filled with brilliant lines that ends too soon, so that I find myself thinking of what might have been — if the poet had only pushed themselves further.

So, I encourage any poet out there to take something they have already written and say to themselves, “How might I add to this? How might it be extended into one or more new directions?” Too many poems I read seem to not have ended where the poem appears to have wanted to take the reader when it started. Those are the poems to look closely at and attempt to extend. If nothing else, the very process of asking and approaching one’s own shorter previous poems with this question of possible extension invites thinking and reflection — and that is always a good thing.

There are also these references to the sun and the moon, especially in terms of and within the confines of our perspective from Earth. This seems as though it is a source of comfort, or at least guidance, for the narrator, especially in the final vignette. What connection do you draw between the human experience and the mysteries of space and the bigger picture?

A defining characteristic of being human is being aware of one’s limits. We are bound by and tied to the things that surround us: earth, moon, sky, water, wind, storm. Perhaps being human means finding comfort in boundaries, in the limits that they imply. So, beginning with ourselves, we are aware of being, in a sense, “trapped” within our bodies. Yet, from within our bodies, we can reach out and move things, make change happen, build or destroy. And we can see well beyond ourselves, both in terms of time and space, and even see and explore the connections and precipitating events other humans have set in place before we were born that still now bear force in our world and on us daily — connections that exist at all levels of space and time. And if one is willing to see them, then they are palpable. A human life is a movement thorough space and time, an unexpected, perpetually fascinating, unscripted choreography that makes and destroys and leaves a trail of evidence made of our deeds and misdeeds that echo in eternity.

As a boy, I moved often, from place to place, from Germany to the Bahamas to Wisconsin and back again. So, early on, I had learned some basic astronomy — perhaps from one of my father’s engineer friends — sitting around the pool or beach in the Bahamas. That knowledge grounded me in place, at least spatially, by expanding well beyond the ground — for wherever I went after that, I would always look up into the night sky and find the Pole Star, and then Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, if they were out, and Venus or Mars or Jupiter, depending on the time of year. And so, regardless where on the earth I went after that, the same milky way of stars shone overhead at night, providing a universal surety, a comfort between the usurpations of being uprooted and re-rooting, a Linus-blanket thrown over the near-constant discomfort of losing my grip on places and people.

Cultural influence and setting play a big role in these poems as well. We get an idea of this relatively strict, formal upbringing with the religion and that great vignette with Buddy Bogus the III’s mother. The narrator lived in Germany and struggles to speak English properly but can speak some Latin. We also get references to the sea and the produce in that area. How much does culture affect how your writing unfolds and what voice you take on for the narrator? Do you purposefully include all of these things, or is it somewhat intuitive once you determine your narrator’s voice?

Well, if the 1950s and 1960s were a living hell for Sylvia Plath in regards of what was expected of her in marriage, then I guess they were not a picnic for her children growing up in that time either. And I was a child of those times. It’s not that things were bad for children then, but that there was perhaps then a rawness or freedom to raising kids that might not be possible today. We generally ran all over the neighborhood, like a pack of wild pigmies, going into each other’s homes for Kool-aid and snacks, then running screaming down the street for another game of hide-and-seek. Any parent could and did apply “correction” as needed, including spanking with a belt or yanking us by our hair or ears, and other parents generally nodded that they were doing the right thing by us. So, there was almost a group consensus among parents as to what was right and wrong that is largely missing today with the nonsense of our unspeakably silly “politically correct” behavior that shields everyone from the realities of how people really feel and act behind closed doors. Nothing has changed but a smoky coat of misleading veneer.

Naturally, my childhood was still a time of deep racial segregation in America, so the children I speak of were almost universally white children. I can’t recall playing with any child of color or any other race, other than white, while I was growing up throughout the 1960s and even as a teenager during the 1970s. Of course, the mentality of the 1950s was alive and well throughout the 1960s, in how women were expected to stay at home and care for the kids and so on. By that, I mean, one should best always think of the behavior of the decade proceeding any decade that they are talking about because group behaviors change rather slowly. So, all was not well in the land of Beaver the Cleaver during the 1960s — moms got together in the afternoons to drink martinis and gossip while their offspring ran in wild packs in the nearby woods and got into bloody fights and scrapes exploring the world.

One of my favorite lines from the collection is in the seventh poem – “How did I survive my parents love?” The idea of love being something one has to survive seems relatable, although paradoxical. How do you reconcile the conflicting concepts of love and suffering, or do they go hand-in-hand?

Have you heard the somewhat silly and self-contradictory saying: ‘I didn’t choose to be born.’?  Well, there you have it. Parents are people. People have kids.  But I suspect that few people really know what to do with a child, other than to feed and clothe and protect it. Parenting is not, per se, a natural skill, however much people wish to delude themselves into thinking otherwise.  It takes some effort and conscious learning and then trial and error to be a good parent. Now, combine this with the idea that perhaps 5% of how we turn out might be written into our genes, but 95% of how we will turn out is due to parental nurture, or the lack thereof. Then, think of all the mostly self-absorbed people you have known who either plan or already have children. Now, how do you think that is working out, for the children, I mean? What stories have you heard, lately, about their kids? Go find out. I dare you. How did we survive our parents love, indeed! It is a key question at the heart of my work that I have yet to fully answer for myself.

Talk to a psychiatrist and they will often tell you the same thing: “Show me a person’s family, and I will be able to explain the person.” So, it’s not just that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but rather that the apple has no choice in falling near the tree and suffering the benefits or other consequence of proximity to the parents. And the local forest of trees all has some impact on the individual tree, on their getting too much or too little light on their branches. And this metaphor, as simplistic as it seems, allows for a great deal of truth to be culled from it. I would go further, much further, and posit that those of us who are the most successful often have had the most help, the greatest push, the most money, the greatest involvement of a mentor, the largest number of allowances for our screw-ups, et cetera, to get to where they are today.

As to whether suffering and love go hand in hand, I would unequivocally say yes. Children crave boundaries that only a parent can provide — a safe place to experiment and to grow while always stretching out into the broader world. But boundaries imply negation, the ability to say no, to set limits, to curtail, to know when enough is enough. Once, on “Inside the Actors Studio,” Anthony Hopkins was asked what was his favorite English word. He immediately answered “No” — his favorite English word because it is the most powerful word in English. No has an elegant finality other words lack.

And so too, parents and bosses and anyone who is a leader need all to be masters of “no,” to set boundaries. And for parents, it helps raise self-confident children who feel loved by the very act of boundary setting because boundaries provide protection, a comfort zone, a safety within which to play. And what all children want — above all else — is to feel safe.

The sixth vignette has the narrator being forced to dance naked by two boys. I would say this is the most overtly sexual poem in the collection, but it seems highly important for the emotional and sexual development of the narrator because it deals with the idea of a sexual role being forced upon someone. What led you to write this scene, and why was it important for you to include it?

Well, we often hear about rape involving a young female victim. We too rarely hear about young males being victims of rape. Of course, this is natural, because most of the rapes are at the hands of men, not women. In my case, this was something that happened to me in the Bahamas when I was 8 or 9 years old. I didn’t really understand what had happened, nor did I care — at the time — other than knowing that I was uncomfortable with it and felt uncomfortable for a very long time. But it was an early lesson in power and politics, learning that sex often isn’t about mere nudity or such, but rather sex is about who has power over another. Beware the savages who howl in the pampas, for they too howl in our souls, and we could become them at any time, given the right set of circumstances. Violence is like gene expression – it just needs the right environment to come forth.

However, much as some adults might wish to deny it, children inevitably experiment in pseudo-sexual, make-believe situations at some point in their childhoods, but without realizing any of the implications of their actions nor with investing much of anything meaningful into it — it is, after all, a form of play, children mimicking adults. So, children are innocent. Therefore, is it the adults who are guilty, if they try to invest too much into the developmental behaviors of children by letting their adult sensibilities spill over into the play that belongs to childhood?

Nonetheless, it always makes me cringe outwardly and smile inwardly whenever I watch children at play because, whether intentional or unintentional, children are so utterly cruel. It is almost lyrical, and exhilarating, like seeing ourselves without restraints, in mid-metamorphosis, before we have any real sense of evil or of good, as if we were still in the garden, playing.

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And now for the additional poems from Kurt that we were not able to feature in our fall chapbook but still wanted to share with all of you.

Everest

I grasp the impulse that might be driving you
to pity me in some odd way for being flabby and fifty
to your skinny and twenty, but you know, I, like most
people, stopped aging in my head at twenty-one, the
mental self-image of a nonstop Sid vicious, smiling at
you still trying to figure yourselves out, while we
older folk are done with nothing and wondering
everywhere we still can, asking better questions than
the thin shit we dredged up in our well-spent
grassy laid bare-assed whistling halleluiah youth.
And you listen to nothing we say all day with piercing
eyes as we watch you climbing our mistakes.

Midnight Recital

Kneeling to untangle my dog’s leg from its leash,
how did I get here, walking a pit bull in the dark
under the sour leaves of drought resistant Texas oaks?
How have these years colluded to put me
with a woman who doesn’t like to be touched
as if my life were still attached
to a former life, lived in felt robes, kneeling,
questioningly, before God’s dead silence?
Why do I sometimes whisper beatitudes in Latin
when grinding roasted coffee beans for breakfast?
Why can’t a fuck be just a fuck like breathing
or the necessary forward movement of starlight
entering my eyes from Polaris when I look up?

Why is my life so intertwined that it folds me
into fractal compartments that expand, as if
from each decision, outward, new enclosures grip me
as I venture forward, faster than any logic I can conjure?
Should I kill politicians to address society’s wrongs?
Or open a shop and sell cracked imported Chinese
Chia Pets? Or get to the lunar surface to erase
the names of loved ones astronauts left behind?
How can this sticky motion of salt and water
hoisted on these dry branches of bone
discern a purpose, lost among thin pricks of starlight
that amble like ancient animals into the night?

Grading the Weekend

Sipping coffee while reading what one student
wrote: “The surviving fifty rare whooping cranes
with their seven-foot wingspread that propels them
in their annual migration from northern Canada
to the Gulf of Mexico fly unerringly and
swiftly overhead as they migrate southward
using a kind of built-in radar
in their search for winter quarters
near Aransas Pass.”

Surviving fifty myself, feeling rare and whooping
with my six-foot slouch that propels me nowhere
in my daily migrations from the kitchen to the couch,
I live by the Gulf of Mexico, sleep unerringly and
swiftly, undercover, my dreams migrate southward
using a kind of built-in slinky
in search for vaginal quarters
near my wife’s Aransas Pass.

To be surviving melanoma is rare
with its seven wretched drugs I puke, that propels
me out of the gothic hospital to monthly migrations of chemo;
swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, on my back, I float unerringly and
slowly, overheard, the nurses’ whispers migrate southward
out of memory, which is a kind of built-in shit-breeder
when I am in pain and searching for the way out
near the dark rings of Uranus.

But survival is everything rare as whooping
or her pubic hair spread to propel me
in my daily migrations from her coffer to wherever
it is in the Gulf of Mexico I am off to, I unerringly
admit to caring enough to love her butt
less than I ought too as I migrate southward
using a kind of built-in stupidity
in my blindly succumbing to what is expected of me
clearly perfecting it into a fairly fucked life.

Inversion on Monkey Bars

The paths in the park my mother walks me in
crisscross, and cut the grass into Latin squares
or rectangles into which scarf-like flowers bloom
and rooted angels grow, staring up at the sky
with empty alabaster eyes. I chase the wind, turning
stone-edged corners as fast as I can
without falling into the arms of an angel
crouching to take flight. I watch them, their bodies
like sleek athletes, ready to pace the sky
for a brief time, before earth might pull them back
or rain ground them. I climb a boulder’s perch, and jump
spread-armed, trying to stay up in the air
longer and longer each time, to no avail.

But hanging upside down on the monkey bars
I float far above the pitiless earth
as if I spend my days walking the clouds,
and all the angels look up at me, surprised

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